Issue 4 - Article 5

Women Killers in Rwanda

September 1, 1995
Lindsey Hilsum

Evidence is now emerging that women were among those who participated in the killings of over 500,000 Tutsis during the genocide in Rwanda last year.

With up to 2 million Hutu refugees still living outside Rwanda’s borders (although recent developments in Zaire may force some to return in the coming weeks), and fears of retribution from Tutsi neighbours, progress in bringing to justice those implicated in the genocide is slow.

Angeline Mukandutiye is a Rwandan refugee, living with her husband and five children in a small make-shift hut in Katale camp north of the Zairean town of Goma. She was employed by an international relief NGO in their programme to look after people in the camp traumatised by the war.

In Rwanda, she had been a primary school inspector. To the aid workers, she was like many other middle-class, educated, Francophone refugees. But they had not done their research. Mukandutiye is one of the most wanted women in Rwanda.

Working with her friend the local councillor, Odette Nyirabagenzi, Mukandutiye is accused of organising the militia in Rugenge, in central Kigali.

The two women were leading local members of one of the political parties which planned the 1994 massacres of Tutsis and the Hutu opposition. Witnesses say they appeared several times at the two churches where Tutsis were hiding.

“I saw Angeline come to St Paul with Odette,” said Goretti Rubanguru, a librarian who hid in the church with her sister. “They said the militia should kill the Tutsis, eliminate them. They had a list and they called out the names of those who were to die.”

Confronted by the accusations of those who say they saw her directing the killers, Mukandutiye was defiant.

“I want to answer these accusations,” she said. “My conscience is clear. If these people were hiding, how could they see what was going on? Anyway, I was in my house the whole time.”

Mukandutiye denied organising the militia, saying the accusations were prompted by political rivalry. “I was in the late President’s political party and I was from his home area. All these accusations are said by my political opponents.” Ironically, Mukandutiye is a Tutsi, one of a few who joined the majority Hutu political establishment. She said she understood why the militia had killed Tutsis after the president, the people’s ‘father’, was killed. “After the father was killed, the children reacted,” she said. Only too happy to answer questions, Angeline refused to have her photograph taken.

The NGO sacked Mukandutiye when a journalist told them the evidence against her. But the fact that they employed her in the first place without asking questions reveals underlying assumptions: women don’t kill, we believe.

Women – especially African women – are by definition innocent victims. Challenged about working in Goma at all, one aid worker said: “But most of the people in the camp aren’t killers, they’re women and children.”

It’s now well known that the massacres of more than half a million people in Rwanda were not random acts of savagery, but a plan carried out by the then government and military leaders to eliminate the minority Tutsi people and any political opposition.

It’s less well-known that women – traditionally seen as victims in Africa’s conflicts – were involved at all levels: planning, organising, identifying targets, even killing with their own hands.

Jeanne Umurerwa cries first in grief and then in anger when she talks about her twelve year old son, Christian. The day the militia dragged him out of the house and killed him, she was cowering in terror in the backyard. From there, she could see a car and in it a familiar figure directing the killers.

“She was wearing a soldier’s uniform. She sent the militia. She was giving the orders. I blame her and her son Chalom for the death of my son Christian.”

The woman Jeanne says is responsible for killing Christian on 22 April 1994 is Paulina Nyiramasuhuko, at the time Rwanda’s Minister for the Family and Women. She is now reported to be living in a comfortable house in the Zairean town of Bukavu, and employed in a local camp to run its social services programme. Odette Nyirabagenzi is also known to be in Bukavu.

Witnesses say that she and her son led the militia in the country’s second city, Butare, where up to a hundred thousand people were killed in last year’s genocide.

Grace Hagenimana, a peasant farmer from Runyinya in the hills west of Butare, remembers Paulina Nyiramasuhuko.

After the plane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down on 6 April 1994, people from the majority Hutu ethnic group started burning down Tutsi homes in Runyinya. The President was a Hutu, and the radio told the people that a guerrilla army, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, led by Tutsis, was responsible for the President’s death.

Hutu neighbours burnt down Grace’s house, so she and other Tutsis took refuge in the local council office. Then the Minister paid a visit.

“I saw her in a car with an escort of policemen,” said Grace. “The mayor had put all those who wanted to kill people in prison, but she said they must be freed. She said: “You must start work, you must hunt the enemies.” Then people took up machetes and the police who had been guarding us started to kill us.”

Grace and her four children fled as the police began shooting and hacking the desperate Tutsis. In the chaos, she lost her husband who she presumes was killed. But this was not the last she saw of Paulina Nyiramasuhuko.

When she reached Butare, Grace went to the provincial offices where she found hundreds of other Tutsis hoping to escape the terror, amongst them Mathilde Nyiramana. Mathilde takes up the story.

“You know, Nyiramasuhuko was very intelligent. She didn’t want to be seen in the day, so she came at night. She and her militia would bring torches and they would search amongst the people, shining the torches in our faces.

We would pretend to be asleep and they would raise our heads to see who we were. When they did that to me, my baby cried a lot.”

According to Mathilde and Grace, the militia would drag out and kill any Tutsi who had an education or wore shoes – peasants like them were spared, but Mathilde’s four brothers were killed.

Surviving the terror brought Mathilde and Grace together. Mathilde’s sister, Marguerite, has a job as a teacher which earns her £25 a month, and the three women now live in two rooms in Butare, struggling to bring up nine children.

Four belong to Grace, four belonged to Mathilde and Marguerite’s brothers and one is an orphan they picked up in the street. All other members of their families were killed, and no-one is helping the women rebuild their lives.

Rwanda’s current Minister for the Family and Women, Aloisie Inyumba, is a member of the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the guerrilla army which defeated the former regime last July.

She says she was shocked when she learnt that women had participated in genocide. “I couldn’t believe it because traditionally our culture respected women so much, and they have a moral value for children. It showed me how low the moral degeneration of our country has gone,” she said.

The genocide in Rwanda was carefully prepared and carried out by Hutu extremists who wanted to exterminate the Tutsis. Jealousy between women was a key element of propaganda. While Hutus and Tutsis are not strictly speaking separate tribes, there is a belief in Rwandan culture that Tutsi women are more beautiful.

A Hutu man in a senior position would often take a Tutsi mistress, known as a “deuxième bureau”, a “second office”, to entertain him after work.

As Tutsi women often came from wealthy families and had studied abroad, international organisations employed a disproportionate number as secretaries. Foreign men, lured by the svelte figures of the stereotype Tutsi girl, favoured them above Hutus.

Hutu extremists wrote a set of “ten commandments” outlining their ideology, where the ills of the country were laid largely at the feet of Tutsi women.

One commandment read, “Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?” The next read, “Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.”

Although most of the killing was carried out by men, women played a significant role in the murder of other women and of children.

Girls in their teens followed the bands of militia, robbing the dead of their clothes, while older women ululated and danced, cheerleaders for the killers.

Survivors bring those they say killed their relatives to the authorities. In villages across Rwanda’s hills where Hutu and Tutsi women used to cultivate and fetch water together, the bitterness between women is acute. “Since last April, no-one trusts anyone anymore,” said Artesia Nyiramana, five of whose nine children were hacked to death as she watched helplessly.

One day in late June this year, Artesia sat in the courtyard of the local authority office in Mbazi, a village north of Butare. A few yards away was the woman she said betrayed her children to the militia – her sister-in-law, friend and neighbour, Francisca Mukangwije.

The two women faced each other, Artesia backed up by two others she had brought as witnesses, Francisca alone.

“I saw you. You pointed out where Emmanuel was hiding and you dragged out Murakatete so they could kill her!” accused Artesia.

“No, I say in front of God I didn’t do that!” shouted Francisca. “Why are you saying this, when we lived together and shared everything?”

Artesia described how one morning last April, a band of militia, their faces painted with chalk and masked by banana leaves, approached her house chanting “We are going to kill you.” As a Hutu married to a Tutsi she was safe, but her children were in danger, because Rwandan children inherit their father’s ethnic group.

Her six year old son, Emmanuel, was hiding in the house but four of her other children were outside. The men gathered eleven children, including those of a neighbour, and pulled them into the road where they killed them with hoes and sticks.

Amongst those attacked was Artesia’s grand-daughter, eight-year old Murakatete. Somehow she survived, and Francisca took the wounded child to her house to wash the blood off her body and clothes. But the band of killers wasn’t satisfied. They demanded more children.

“Francisca told them where Emmanuel was hiding, and she dragged Murakatete out. She took her to the road and said “I have brought the child,” said Artesia. “I saw her do it.”

“I was frightened, and I couldn’t stop them,” said Francisca. “The men came and said they had heard a child and knew Murakatete was hidden in my house. They said they had seen her, and they took her. It wasn’t my fault.”

Francisca may have been too frightened to try and save Murakatete, but in Rwanda today failure to protect is a potentially punishable crime, one element in genocide. Francisca is likely to be imprisoned.

Artesia, desperate with pain and loss, said forgiveness is out of the question. “God said those who kill by the knife must die by the knife. I’ll forgive her only if she can bring back Murakatete and Emmanuel. Otherwise she should be treated as a killer like all the others.”

More than a thousand women have been thrown into Rwanda’s cramped and insanitary jails, and some have been held for nearly a year without being charged. In Rwanda, it seems, everyone arrested is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Most of the women in prison are poor peasants, women like Francisca, fingered by widows and other survivors. They are paying the price for crimes masterminded by educated men and women who have fled the country.

“Rwandan women are obedient, so when they were instructed to kill their neighbours they did so,” explained Aloisie Inyumba, the Minister of the Family and Women. “The majority of women in Rwanda are illiterate and the state gave them instructions.”

Yet more than a year after the genocide, the Rwandan government has failed to distinguish between those who actively participated in genocide, those who were too frightened to resist the killers and others who may have been falsely accused. All women in prison, and most men, proclaim their innocence, usually saying that they’ve been denounced by people who want their land or property. Without proper investigations it’s impossible to convict the guilty and clear the innocent.

In jail in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a short, broadly-built woman known to all as Mama Aline reluctantly emerges from the filthy, congested corridor where the women are contained. She is reluctant to speak to a journalist, rasping hoarsely that she has a sore throat and cannot answer questions. Mama Aline’s name comes up time and again amongst survivors who gathered for protection in the churches of St Paul and Ste Famille in central Kigali.

Innocent Iyakaremye, who used to work in a music shop, said he watched aghast as Mama Aline tortured and killed a wealthy Tutsi businesswoman, Spéciose Karakezi, because the militia, paid off by Speciose, had refused to do so.

Mama Aline denies involvement, but witnesses testify that she worked with Odette Nyirabagenzi and Angeline Mukandutiye, organising the militia in central Kigali.

Mukandutiye, living in the refugee camp in Goma, said she would be willing to face an international court, but will not return to Rwanda should trials start there.

Yet the International Tribunal established by the United Nations will not issue its first indictments until the end of this year at the earliest, and the likelihood is that suspected war criminals will go to ground in Zaire or more remote parts of Africa when arrest warrants are issued.

Unless strong member states of the United Nations pay more towards the International Tribunal and push for it to be effective, the chances are that these women will never face justice.

Only those gathered in Rwanda’s squalid prisons will have to confront their accusers. Punishment will be reserved primarily for those who were too frightened to protect people or to defy the orders of the architects of genocide.

Jeanne Umererwa, cradling her new baby Charmant but never forgetting the son she lost, has another suggestion. “The name of Paulina Nyiramasuhuko should be written everywhere in the world so everyone should know she is an evil woman,” she said. “Then she should be brought to Rwanda and be put amongst the women so the women can judge her”.


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